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It may be some of the least controversial $10 million Missoula will ever spend.

In 2006, voters passed an open space bond issue, and since then, the city and county have been protecting elk habitat, hiking trails, working ranches and even mountain views with their $5 million each. Again and again, surveys show open space is well supported in the community, said Mayor John Engen.

“Everybody loves, loves, loves their parks and their trails and their open space, and they’re willing to invest in them,” Engen said.

An estimated $5.9 million of the bond has been spent so far to directly protect 11,961 acres and leverage another protection for 14,951 acres throughout the county, according to the most recent annual report from Missoula County. That’s a total of 26,912 acres.

For the first time, a project to protect a vegetable garden, the River Road Community Garden, is on the table, and the Open Space Advisory Committee has recommended it for approval, said Jackie Corday, open space program manager for the city Parks and Recreation Department. The plot grows some 4,000 pounds of food a year for the Poverello Center’s soup kitchen, and it will head to the Missoula City Council in April for consideration, she said.

“It’s the first community garden that we’ve been able to contribute bond funds to protect,” Corday said.

Community farmland will be one of several new priorities in the future. The city wants to preserve the PEAS Farm and adjacent playing fields in the Rattlesnake, and city officials are talking with Missoula County Public Schools, which owns that property, and Garden City Harvest, which runs the farm with the University of Montana.

Engen said he anticipates most of the 2006 bond will be spent in the next couple of years, and he would like to see another bond for green space to come before voters in 2016. If possible, he would like future funds to focus at least partly on urban parks for children and families who need them most.

“As hard as it may seem to believe, I know that we have kids who are not very likely to see the Rattlesnake recreation area even though it’s within spitting distance,” said Engen, who said the city has an obligation to those families.

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Pat O’Herren, who directs Missoula County’s Community and Planning Services office, said since the 2006 bond passed, he’s seen a reaffirmation of the original goals of the bond to protect water quality, wildlife habitat, scenic landscapes, working farms and ranches, and open space. At the same time, he’s seen an increased interest in trails, not only for recreational purposes but for transportation.

The last open space bond came as a proposal from the private sector, and O’Herren said he would like any future requests to originate there as well. One success of the current bond is the way projects are dispersed throughout the county, he said. (See a map posted online with this story.)

“The other thing that’s notable is we’ve become much more aware of and appreciative of the work of the land trusts and private property owners, the great ability they have to not only protect private property rights but also to help the community in general protect the resources that are so valuable to all of us,” O’Herren said.

The Five Valleys Land Trust, the Nature Conservancy, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and property owners are among those who partner with the city and county. Pelah Hoyt, with Five Valleys, said national programs focus on national values, but the open space program is about Missoula’s values, and it’s been invaluable in protecting land.

“When this most recent bond happened, we were able to complete projects that we had been working on for sometimes 10 years,” said Hoyt, conservation project manager. “That bond was the missing piece that allowed us to get these great projects done.”

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One rare criticism of the open space program is that some of the projects don’t allow public access. The largest expenditure is one example, $1.17 million toward three conservation easements to protect 627 acres of open space, landscapes, a working ranch, and wildlife habitat in the South Hills.

“The reason why (there’s no access) is those were working ranches with cattle grazing on them,” Corday said. “So the last thing you want ... (is to have) a bull go after a hiker.”

Even people who offer the occasional caution about projects are also its champions. Councilwoman Cynthia Wolken, for instance, said she believes the bond has been “wildly successful” and is a big benefit to the Missoula community.

“I also think it’s important to encourage and preserve public access on open space lands wherever possible,” Wolken said.

Most of the easements and acquisitions ensure some form of access for people who want to hike or hunt or use the land some other way, and some ensure future travel corridors can be completed. The city spent $80,000 to protect Jacobs Island, for instance, part of a larger puzzle.

“That piece is critical in eventually making the Kim Williams Trail connect to a bridge that will go across the Clark Fork River and into Milltown State Park,” Corday said.

In the future, growth will take place in the Wye Mullan area and in the Linda Vista and Maloney Ranch neighborhoods, and both those areas have a great need for open space and parks, Corday said. So she is looking at projects in those places, and she also wants to extend the Milwaukee Trail further to the west.

“It’s out in the future, but we have to start working now to secure that,” Corday said.

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Here’s a sample of some of the largest projects and ones that afford significant public access, according to reports from the city and the county. Go to this story on Missoulian.com for more detailed information.

•North Hills, 2010. At $445,000 this is the second largest open space expenditure of the city’s portion of funds, with the South Hills being the largest one. It’s for 304 acres of grasslands, winter range for elk and viewshed.

•The Deschamps project in 2010 protected 1,036 acres of grasslands, riparian area, elk habitat and viewshed in the Wye area. The city and county each contributed $175,000, and it’s the largest city project by acreage. The public access there is unique. Corday said a special access agreement allows four trips to the land each year. “So Parks and Rec can take field trips up there with the public to show them how beautiful the wildflowers and the grasses are in the spring,” she said.

•The largest county project by acreage is Sunset Hill, in 2007 and 2010, a conservation easement in Greenough supported by $350,000 of bond money. It protects 3,440 acres as part of the larger Blackfoot Community Project where the Nature Conservancy acquired Plum Creek land for transfer to private and public landowners. The project was used as a match to protect another 14,500 acres. “We spent a little bit of money and got significant protection and significant public access for our constituents as well as other members of the public,” O’Herren said.

•One significant project for the city is the one on Mount Jumbo that protects 59 acres and has 100 percent public access. The city paid $31,000. “We added a great new trail for folks who live in East Missoula,” Corday said. Now, they can walk all the way to the Rattlesnake on a trail.

•The Hall Camas Creek project to protect 713 acres in the Potomac is significant for the county. “It has dedicated public access that includes a trail that goes directly to DNRC land behind it, so that’s huge,” said O’Herren of tens of thousands of Department of Natural Resources and Conservation acreage. The county supported a conservation easement with $250,000 of bond funding, and it supports water quality, wildlife habitat, working farms, ranches and forests, and more.

•The Hayes Evaro project protected 177 acres in Evaro in 2008. Bond funds contributed $150,000, and O’Herren said the easement protects camas meadows important to local tribes and still available to them. “This one was pretty special in terms of the landowners recognizing there’s a historic trail through it,” he said.

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Reach Keila Szpaller at @keilaszpaller, at keila.szpaller@missoulian.com or at (406) 523-5262.

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